Pushing past mediocrity in the federal workplace


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April 16, 2013

Given the current uncertain fiscal environment, many federal employees are feeling frustrated and helpless in the workplace. Tom Fox spoke with organizational change expert Brigadier General John Michel about how federal leaders can help employees focus on the possibilities rather than the limitations. Michel is the chief change and learning strategist at the U.S. Transportation Command and is also the author of “Mediocre Me: How Saying No to the Status Quo Will Propel you From Ordinary to Extraordinary.” Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads up their Center for Government Leadership. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What is the “mediocre me” mindset?

The term mediocre is derived from the French word meaning half way up the mountain. I love that visual. In the workplace, there are a lot of pressures to settle and not push the bounds of your individual and organizational performance.

The longer the “mediocre me” mindset is allowed to operate unchecked, the greater its ability to cultivate doubt for the future, stifle forward motion and help us rationalize away opportunities to innovate. We need more leaders who are willing to risk thinking differently and acting boldly in pushing forward progress.

What can federal leaders do to help their employees and organizations increase performance?

You want to change the way people show up in the world by helping them change the way they think. In the federal government, we tend to be a problem-solving organization, but that leads us to be impatient and focus on overcoming obstacles rather than acting on opportunity.

We need to liberate employees to solve problems in compelling and creative ways. When we equip, encourage and empower people to believe they can do something significant, they will rise to the occasion. Finally, we must stop relying on easy “one size fixes all” solutions. We tend to bring in outside consultants to drive and disperse innovation. They can help guide a conversation, but change that sticks has to be an inside job.

Why is emotional intelligence an important attribute in the federal workplace?

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the other kind of smart. It refers to the ability to perceive, control and evaluate emotions so we can maximize our positive interactions with others. Leaders with high EQ are true treasures in the workplace, because they have strong interpersonal skills, they offer and ask helpful questions, and mitigate conflict productively.

When it comes to job performance, EQ counts for up to 60 percent of an individual’s performance compared to IQ, which is fixed when we are very young, and personality, which is fixed by the time we’re 20-years old. Interestingly, almost every Fortune 500 company teaches emotional intelligence. It is the only thing you can affect as a leader and should be a foundation for all federal employees and leaders. The vast majority of the performance by the time you are a mid-level manager and above directly correlates with emotional intelligence — and that has nothing to do with being the smartest person in the room.

How can federal leaders use positive psychology to energize employees?

Leaders must be cognizant about how they show up to the workplace every day. They need to ask, “How can I be a role model that’s going to live the message that we are trying to set?” Bringing that positive sense of self to work and doing intentional little things to communicate you want to help bring out the best in your people is powerful. To put a spin on Gandhi’s phrase, lead the change you want to see by setting an example worth emulating. Start by no longer accepting good enough as good enough. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.

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